Ready for another taste of poison apple? Mere months after Mirror Mirror—Tarsem Singh’s frenetically hyperstylized take on the beloved bedtime story about a fair maiden, an evil queen and seven dwarfs—comes first-time feature director Rupert Sanders’s surprisingly solemn retelling. A too-bustling prologue shows how Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron, camping it up) usurped power, poisoned the land and imprisoned her stepdaughter rival, Snow White (Kristen Stewart, a delight). But then the film finds surer footing and proceeds with a deliberateness rare in a big-budget franchise starter; you can sense the hand of coscreenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive) in the story’s always involving, slow-build structure.
The very strong early scenes are practically a chamber drama, as Ravenna skulks around the castle longing for everlasting power and beauty (her mirror on the wall is a burnished disc that strikingly morphs into a faceless golden figure) and Snow figures out a way to escape captivity. Yet once the scope widens to include the dwarfs—creepily played by a bunch of normal-height British character actors with their heads transposed onto small bodies—and the loutish huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) who proves to be our heroine’s Prince Charming, the movie becomes a more conventional fantasy adventure in the Lord of the Rings vein. The rousing speeches and booming battle scenes are all well done as far as blockbuster spectacle goes, but you can’t help but feel the filmmakers’ resistance to the story’s grimmer undercurrents. The moral is clear: Indulge the baser desires of the multiplex masses above all else.
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